There is a not-so-secret side to Christmas we like to pretend no one knows about. It's called fear, and it is everywhere.
It is definitely in the kitchen. From first time turkey cookers through to seasoned veterans, fear inhabits almost every kitchen. There is the surface level fear that your turkey will be dry and tasteless; and there is the much deeper fear that something will go wrong and your guests will become victims of food poisoning. In fact, if you can catch turkey cookers in a candid moment, many will admit to heaving a huge sigh of relief come Boxing Day, when no early morning phone calls are received inquiring if anyone else is sick.
Fear also hovers around the Christmas tree. Some are fearful their spouse won't like the gift they purchased? I would admit to that fear, except I haven't purchased anything yet. I still have a little time.
Other fears reside in the family room and are typically of a more serious nature. Many are afraid that when the family is all together this week, Uncle "Harold" will drink too much and the risk of overt unpleasantness in the gathering is sky high.
It is ironic that the season designed for peace and joy and goodwill is accompanied by so much fear and worry. Ironic, that is, until one pauses to consider the first Christmas. The peace and joy we love to celebrate did not come in the absence of a high-stress environment, it came right in the middle of it.
Mary was living a normal teenage life, a godly, pure life to be sure, but she was just a normal teenage girl, suddenly face to face with an angel who told her she would give birth to the Son of God. Try describing that one. Her entire world turned upside down and she had more than her share of fear.
Or, think about Joseph, wracked with disappointment that his fiance was pregnant, not by him, suddenly being met in a dream and told to believe every word Mary spoke. I bet the boys at the carpentry shop didn't understand that. He had played by the rules, had an honest, upright life all planned, and suddenly nothing made sense.
Talk about fear, stress and worry! How about the shepherds minding their own business, doing what shepherds do, when suddenly the heavens opened and they became messengers of the birth of the One who changed the course of history?
Those are not surreal moments, they are God-moments, that actually happened in real time and space. The message of Christmas did not come to a dream environment for any of the main players. It came to a ruthless reality.
Does it still happen? Does God still encounter us in our high-stress, fear-filled realities, or is the story of Christmas intended to be "surreal" occurring only in pretend environments?
When Christmas is distilled down to its essence, what I love best is that it answers that question. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that, "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means, 'God with us.'" God up close and personal, in our reality.
The implications are mind-boggling. If God is with me when I mess up my life, and I often do, and I ask for forgiveness, it's not just in my imagination that I feel better. God, who is with me, actually does forgive me and give me peace. If God is with me when I pray for a child or spouse going through challenging times, it's not just in my imagination that a sense of peace envelops me. God, who is with me, actually provides it.When I show love and compassion to someone in a season of need and they respond by saying, "God bless you," it's not just a warm fuzzy feeling. God, who is with me, actually provides the blessing.
And, when I sing Silent Night, Holy Night, and I sing it in a season that's been filled with catastrophe, the sense of peace and calm that overwhelms me will not be surreal, it will be the God who is with me, assuring me one more time that in the middle of this crazy, mixed up world of ours, He is still here making a very real difference.
So, when I say Merry Christmas this year, what I'm really wishing you is that God might be up close and personal in each one of your fears, turning them into peace.
- Tim Schroeder is a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church; National Pastor with The Leadership Centre/Willow Creek Canada.